Category Archives: Cooking

The Organic Chemistry of Baking Bread

04 Comprehensive Maillard

The chemistry that underlies the browning of bread. meats, etc. was first defined in 1912 by Louis-Camille Maillard and involves the polymerization of sugars and proteins. While this reaction is obviously messy (i.e. has many different pathways), the dominant chemical mechanisms were identified in a classic paper by John Hodge in 1953 and are outlined in the figure above. As you can see, bread-browning is mainly: amine(protein)-activated carbonyl(sugar) polymerization.

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The Combinatorial Chemistry of Flavor

Spectroscopy-Microscopy-Spectrum-v4

Taste is only one component of the flavor of food, with others including:

  • texture: gritty vs.  greasy vs. dry
  • aroma:  see post on Food Aroma Chemistry
  • temperature“:  the cooling of mint vs. the heat of chilis

As an aspiring cook, I have found it helpful to summarize the chemistry behind each part of a foods flavor so that I can better understand how to control each of these variables. In the figure above I have summarized the chemical basis for each type of “taste” and food’s that represent characteristic combination.

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The Color Chemistry of Food

Plant-Chem-2 aromas-v5

Most plant pigments seem to have evolved as “sunscreens” for the photosynthetic machinery of the plant wherein they filter out high energy (potentially damaging) light that cannot be used for photosynthesis. Chemically there are only a few classes of these “sunscreens” whose light absorbing properties lead to rich array of colors that we observe throughout the plant kingdom(see figure above). Below we discuss each class in terms of common observations (e.g. autumn leaves) and cooking considerations.

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The Chemistry of Food Aromas

Plant-Chem-2 aromas-v5

All the complex aromas associated with cooking are caused by an ensemble of volatile (small) organic molecules that typically arise from plant material or cooking. As can be seen in the figure above, characteristic aromas arise from small organic molecules with a characteristic functional group: e.g. “fruity” = lactones; “green” = long chain-aldehydes or alcohols; “spicy” = phenols; etc.

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